A Balancing Act: Traditional and Museological Care of Wampum

by Stephanie Mach

In many ways this project is as much about exploring the cultural significance of wampum as it is examining how museums curate and construct understandings about wampum. So far, we have visited ten museums and noticed a variety of protocols, handling practices, and storage methods. When contacting each museum to request a research visit, we were aware of the fact that we were asking to see culturally sensitive material, and museum staff informed us about objects with active NAGPRA claims. We are keenly aware of the delicacy of our position as researchers moving among multiple tribes and institutions. Our intent is to gain a broader understanding of wampum use and production while simultaneously focusing on minute details of material and construction that may help to clarify temporal, regional, and cultural differences. Hence, we consulted with the Haudenosaunee and others ahead of time, and we are sharing what we’ve learned with relevant tribal nations and institutions.

Reproduction of the 1794 George Washington Treaty of Canadaigua wampum belt. Made with electrical wire insulation and artificial sinew by Jake Thomas. Item III-I-1867, Canadian Museum of History. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Reproduction of the 1794 George Washington Treaty of Canadaigua wampum belt. Made with electrical wire insulation and artificial sinew by Jake Thomas. Object # III-I-1867, Canadian Museum of History. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

In general, institutions with active claims were more cautious in their approach; they placed more strict protocols on our visit, particularly regarding photography and handling. For example, before confirming our visit, several museums contacted tribal representatives to ask permission to show the collections to outside researchers. Another museum does not allow photography of wampum without prior tribal representative approval. At one museum, we were prohibited from photographing certain collections, understandably because they were from a burial context. Yet, we were allowed to photograph reproductions of these same collections that were on public display. In another museum, we examined a reproduction wampum belt constructed of plastic beads and artificial sinew that was treated with the same respect and restrictions afforded to historic shell wampum. The strict protocols placed on these reproductions raise interesting questions. Does it matter whether these objects are reproductions or not? Are wampum belts sacred in and of themselves, or are they made sacred by the rituals and meanings attached to them? This experience allowed me to think about wampum in an entirely new way.

If we consider the fact that wampum belts are made of organic material–shell, sinew, hemp, leather–then we know that these materials will not last forever. However, there are no fixed expiration dates on meaning and significance. What happens when the material severs, cracks, or breaks? Does the meaning also diminish? Or does the significance get passed into a new material–new shell beads, new leather strands, a new generation? Can a reproduction embody the significance of the original?

Cotton gloves, cotton twill tape, and white  polyethylene board used to store and handle wampum. McCord Museum, Montreal, Canada. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

Cotton gloves, cotton twill tape, and polyethylene foam used to store and handle wampum. McCord Museum, Montreal, Canada. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

On the subject of preservation, we can compare the various ways that museums have chosen to preserve, conserve, and store wampum. In collection storage, belts were laid out on padded tables for us, handling protocols were explained, and gloves were provided so we could carefully lift the ends of the belts to see their construction techniques. To ease the movement of these objects, wampum belts and collars were typically placed onto strips of polyethylene foam or archival-grade paper board and tied down with cotton twill tape in storage. A few museums cut object-shaped cavities into thicker foam and laid the object into the cavity. Both of these methods allow collections managers to transport these objects more safely from shelf to table, since the foam or board supports the weight of the belt and the ties and foam cavities ensure that the object does not move or fall.

The Fort Stanwix Treaty belt has been sewn to a fabric backing for support. Item # 37415 in the New York State Museum, Albany, NY. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

The Fort Stanwix Treaty belt has been sewn to a fabric backing for support. Object # 37415 in the New York State Museum. Photo by Stephanie Mach. Courtesy New York State Museum, Albany, NY.

At several institutions, we encountered wampum belts that had been sewn down to fabric backing. In each case, this had apparently been done for display purposes and presumably left intact post-exhibition to provide added support in storage. Some belts were quite fragile, so the stitching provided reinforcement, but the foreign threads interfered with our ability to examine original construction and condition. In a more extreme case, one belt had been glued to a plexiglass backing and was completely immobilized. We also encountered a very long belt that is roughly five feet in length, however, less than half of the belt was visible due to an artistic display mount that coiled the belt at two mid-points. These curatorial strategies likely created dramatic visuals for display, but became a disadvantage for the objects in storage and for potential researchers and tribal visitors. I was disappointed as a researcher not to be able to see details of the other side. Of greater concern is the fact that tribal representatives visiting these belts would not be able to lift them freely from their backings.

When I first encountered a belt attached to a backing, my first thought was that I selfishly wanted to see the other side, but understood that this arrangement provides the belt with more support and stabilization than if it were free moving. However, my mind was quickly changed when we visited a repatriated wampum belt under the care of Chief Curtis Nelson at Kanehsatake. This belt is stored in the same box that it arrived in from the museum, including the standard foam support and twill ties. Everything seemed quite similar, until Chief Nelson lifted the belt from its box, draped it over his shoulder, ran his hand down the beads of the belt, and began to speak about its significance to his community, historically and presently. It dawned on me that the reason I had not seen a belt move or be moved in this manner before is that it would be inappropriate for a museum collections manager or curator to handle a belt in this way. Until this point, I could have considered the museum protocols for careful handling to be aligned with the goal of preservation–but I now believe they are equally aligned with cultural sensitivity.

Chief Curtis Nelson holds up the repatriated wampum belt in his care.

Condoled Chief Curtis Nelson at the Mohawk Nation of Kanehsatake (Oka, Quebec, Canada) holds up the repatriated wampum belt in his care. Photo by Lise Puyo.

A box of smudging materials is available for use by museum visitors. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

A box of smudging materials is available for use by Museum visitors. Photo by Stephanie Mach.

I was impressed by the efforts of several museums to consider and respond to the challenge of managing these and other culturally sensitive materials. One museum had a separate area of storage specifically for housing culturally sensitive material. In this space certain objects were draped with cloth to hide them from sight, offerings of tobacco were allowed to lay loose on shelves, and the entire section was roped off from the rest of storage to signal that this area was restricted. We encountered offerings left on or near objects in storage at several other museums as well. Those offerings included tobacco pouches, medicinal herbs, and quahog shells. One museum allowed smudging in storage, while several others had a room specifically designated for consultation meetings where smudging is permitted. I also noted at least two museums that had smudging kits available for use by visitors.

After witnessing the care of wampum at so many different locations—tribal museums, non-tribal museums, and in the hands of a traditional Wampum Keeper—we are able to consider the many negotiations to be made among tribal members, collections managers, curators, conservators, and so on when balancing traditional care and standard museum collections management.

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